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The Army Lawyer | Issue 1 2022View PDF

Book Review: Exercise of Power

Book Cover: Exercise of Power

Book Review

Exercise of Power

American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.1

Much like the ominous last line of Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby, the United States finds itself struggling mightily against a current that stands to push it back into the mistakes and failures of the past. Like Fitzgerald’s boat, citizens press forward against it nonetheless, hoping to move forward. The image is easy to visualize—the struggle, as old as time, to move forward and learn, paying homage to the past while struggling mightily not to relive it.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, in his 2019 Exercise of Power,2 uses this juxtaposition in his follow-up work to Duty3 and examines military and nonmilitary power through a series of “interventions” by the United States. In doing so, and by understanding what led to decisions to use one, both, or neither, Gates offers a glimpse into a way forward, founded on the building blocks of national triumph, sorrow, abandonment, and salvation.

If the United States can learn from these, argues Gates, the country can survive the post-Cold War world and thrive as a democracy, worthy of international envy. More importantly, the country can gauge successes and failures against measuring sticks, such as China and Russia, who face the same challenges, and determine how the United States is truly faring.

The Symphony of Power

Secretary Gates compares a sovereign’s exertion of power to a symphony. His symphony consists of the military and additional tools, ranging from traditional diplomacy, information, and economics to more nuanced instruments, such as cyber capabilities, nationalism, and religion. Just as important, the symphony requires synchronizing and directing these additional instruments—and it requires the president to act as a conductor.4

Gates’s reflection on this power—and how the United States projects it—resonates throughout the book and rests on the important assumption that the United States’ advocacy for those “struggling for liberty, for a more just and free society, is . . . as old as the republic and a source of our global influence and power.”5 Advocacy is, simply put, what makes Americans who they are, however aspirational it may sound.

As Gates relays in his concluding remarks, “our ideology is fundamental to America’s role in the world, keeping alive the belief among the oppressed and unfree that this country will use every nonmilitary instrument we have to advance the cause of freedom and democracy.”6 Abandoning this equates to an abandonment of American history and causes a loss of “our national soul.”7

Throughout the book, Gates is careful with words. His choices are deliberate and calculated, as expected from the former Secretary of Defense and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. No mistake, then, is his assessment to use every nonmilitary instrument to advance freedom. Military might is necessary, but it cannot always be the default. In this newest work, he thoughtfully argues that nonmilitary sources of power must be further explored; they need to be exercised.

Not surprisingly, this exercise of power comes in many forms. This exercise of power can arrive with fanfare, pomp, and circumstance—or it can scale a beachhead in the dark of night, unknown to anyone. It can be a promise made, or a promise broken. The exercise of power, when done correctly, defies definition. Regardless of form, however, the exercise of power requires commitment, and the force of the government—Gates’s “symphony of power”—must stand behind it. “A threat by the president of the United States is a potent deterrent only if it is credible and the president is prepared to act upon it.”8 If, in exerting power, a president wants to draw a red line, then the symphony, at the behest of the conductor, must be ready to play when called upon.

In examining this symphony, Gates focuses on the United States’ displays of power in fifteen different countries. He further examines the successes and failures in twelve of these countries in which the United States chose to intervene militarily, or at least contemplated doing so.9 What makes his observations so captivating throughout the book is his proximity to them—such a glimpse behind the decisions made at the national level is rare. Gates provides the reader with that insight, across multiple presidents and administrations. The book is apolitical in that sense—Secretary Gates recognizes the politics, but manages, rather deftly, to separate those from the exercise of power.

Power Misused Is Power Lost10

Gates uses the disaster in Mogadishu, Somalia, as an entrance to discuss the many failures the United States has experienced and calls it an “enduring example” of the failure to exercise both military and nonmilitary power.11 The effort, which started out as a United Nations peace operation to deliver international relief to a war-torn country in crisis, quickly devolved into a kinetic military response.12 Contrary to the approach to relations with Iran, where Gates laments a surprisingly restrained approach taken by more than one leader,13 Somalia represents a poor attempt to exert military power without a clear end state.

Elsewhere, Gates observes situations (such as that in Ukraine, referencing the time period before 2022 invasion by Russia) where the United States chose to exercise power but, arguably, selected the wrong tools in doing so. Instead of choosing covert operations, cyberattacks, or sabotage, the United States opted for purely economic sanctions, creating a backseat approach to diplomacy he calls “intervention-lite.”14

Gates is particularly hard on presidents in this area, and argues that interventions in Ukraine, Georgia, Libya, and Syria present a multitude of lessons for future presidents.15 He presents the motives, the stagnant and tired positions held, and the chronic indecisions as failures to impact a crisis in the most efficient way possible. He excoriates the decisions across party lines, even recognizing at times that he is one of the constants in the decision-making process.

A recurring point throughout the book, though, is overreliance on the military. Like Rosa Brooks,16 he senses a pattern of using the U.S. military as a broad solution to all of the world’s problems. Gates, quoting military historian Max Hastings, notes that a Soldier’s selling point is that they kill people. “It is too much to ask of most that they should resolve political and social challenges beyond their . . . experience, conditioning and resources.”17 The military, he argues, should not be the solution to everything.

This argument, as the reader can attest, is neither a new position, nor a novel basis for a work of non-fiction. What makes Gates’s book worth reading, however, is the way in which he then weaves this narrative into a need for, of all things, marketing. The United States consistently outpaces the world in virtually every category of humanitarian aid and assistance, but habitually fails to receive the recognition due.

Gates is painfully consistent throughout his book on exposing the United States’ terrible promotion skills. To illustrate this point, Gates reminds readers that during the late 1990s, while North Korea was experiencing a severe famine that killed millions, the United States gave more food for relief in a four-year period (1997–2000) than China did.18 In 1999 alone, the United States donated more than the rest of the world combined, yet failed to publicize this assistance, and made little to no effort to let the North Koreans know who was feeding them.19

North Korea is one example, but the list is exhausting. Virtually every country, friend or foe, has received some benefit from American coffers. These are successes in a humanitarian sense, to be sure. The failure is that the country, in Gates’s estimation, is so bad at broadcasting the good it does year after year across nations, continents, cultures, religions, and governments. As the world’s largest benefactor, Gates argues eloquently, the United States fails to take credit for these actions, and, thus, fails to reap the benefits.

Qualified Success

In Gates’s estimation, U.S. involvement in Colombia stands as an unequivocal, albeit imperfect, example of a successful use of the symphony concept.20 In his estimation, the “history of decisions and actions by both U.S. and Colombian leaders contributing to the success of Plan Colombia” has helped to explain failures elsewhere, serving as a model to replicate.21 To replicate this success, Gates focuses on six lessons that he believes are of enduring relevance.

First, he believes that a courageous and hardened leader—willing to use force against enemies but also work with all elements of society—is a precondition to success. In Colombia, then-President Álvaro Uribe exhibited both traits.22 Solving the world’s problems is impossible with a leader devoid of courage or diplomacy—it requires a “steel backbone.”23

Gates misses an opportunity here to define the key differences between military and nonmilitary power. His observation that a leader “willing to use force” while working “with all elements of society” serves as the crux of the book; however, this sentence, buried a quarter of the way into his work, is easily overlooked and inadequately highlighted. Make no mistake, however—the imperative encapsulates Gates’s argument succinctly and efficiently. Unfortunately, recognizing the argument is anticlimactic nestled among the six factors of success.

Second, Gates proposes that success needs foundation. In Colombia, that foundation existed in the form of a unified, well-established, and democratic institution.24 In Afghanistan, it did not, or had not in decades. The absence of a foundation—something on which to build—cuts against a successful symphony of power. Often, this foundation is missing in many of the United States’ foreign humanitarian aid and other overseas projects.

Third, Gates attributes success to the fact that the military did not drive Colombia’s plan, and the country instead drew on nonmilitary instruments of power. Colombia’s Department of State took the lead while other government agencies filled supporting roles. The military and police were responsible for fighting rebels, and improvements in security were key, but U.S. assistance efforts were managed by civilians.25 This was key, and remains an important lesson today: be there to assist those fighting, but do not conduct the fighting for them.

The next two keys to success involve Congress’ role in the exercise of power. For the most part, Gates focuses on the executive branch in discussing the symphony of power. When he does discuss the legislative branch, it is to upbraid their abdication to the executive. Here, however, he notes that the congressional limits on the size of the military and contractor presence in Colombia was critical and stands in contrast to a more traditional role, at least of late, where Congress has ceded its powers in foreign policy almost exclusively to the president.26 Success demands that Congress be involved. Further, bipartisan support from that same Congress who imposed limits was key; it spanned fifteen years and three presidencies. This consistency allowed for the strategic goals of intervention to play out over time—a luxury not usually afforded to these types of long-term efforts.

Finally, Colombia wanted the United States’ help.27 The United States never invaded or occupied Colombia. For the most part, the U.S. presence was undetectable to Colombians, and this quiet exercise of power was a key to that success. Along this vein, Gates devotes an entire chapter to the continent of Africa, save Somalia, and labels U.S. efforts there a success—despite the incredible challenges the continent presents. Again, however, Gates attributes this success to the belief that the United States often preferred and implemented nonmilitary means when dealing with Africa. By no means was Africa a peaceful place, but, quoting former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “[t]he solution to these conflicts had . . . to be found through diplomacy, with outside force introduced rarely and selectively.”28

It is in his discussion of Africa that Gates truly shines. After considering a detractor’s argument that humanitarian and diplomatic assistance to Africa yields little to no benefit to the United States, he encourages the reader to consider that even in great philanthropy, there are personal gains to be considered. Diplomacy and assistance in war-torn and famine-ravaged Africa might be the “right and moral things to do,” but that line of thinking is for idealists.29 The United States helps others because doing so helps the United States. Such humanitarian support attacks pandemics, terrorism, and extremists at their points of origin and creates allies for a future time when the seemingly altruistic state may need them.30

The American diplomatic and humanitarian policy approach to the continent of Africa ties Secretary Gates’s argument together. America must be willing to take on the hard tasks and must never shrink to a corner while the rest of the world struggles. Diplomacy and humanitarian assistance benefit the United States in untold ways, and for untold future generations. However, to capitalize on this, the country must not shirk from advertising its good deeds. Leaders must embrace them and hone them into something that projects the country’s power around the globe.

Lessons Learned

In his own words, Secretary Gates “saw, and was party to, both good and bad decisions. All of them cost lives. And [he] learned a lot.”31 He does not take this lightly, and he honestly and openly discusses the role he had in many of these interventions. Often, using hindsight, he is able to pinpoint the failure or the turning point; not surprisingly, that failure is often laid at the president’s feet. Gates clearly adopts the belief that great power bestows great responsibility.

And responsibility is key here—the United States must take credit for and publicize nonmilitary efforts.32 The satisfaction of doing good works without fanfare “may be sufficient for religious orders,” but for governments engaged in the exercise of power, such silence serves no purpose.33 Gates minces no words in this regard, calling American strategic communications inadequate and inept at times, leaving the magnitude of assistance provided to international crises virtually unknown to the entire world.34

Credit notwithstanding, Gates asserts that the United States must define and understand the purposes and goals of American power beyond simply protecting national interests.35 Gates argues the United States has not yet identified its approach to foreign policy, and he contemplates two distinct strategies to flush them out. Does the United States assume the role of making the world “safe for democracy,” as Woodrow Wilson said, or ought the country adopt John Quincy Adams’s ideal to be the “the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all,” but the “champion and vindicator of her own”?36 The United States must react to each intervention, using lessons from the past. America must utilize the symphony of power in a way that is as unique as the problem itself. In this aspect alone, Gates’s book is refreshing and surprisingly optimistic.

One thing is certain for Secretary Gates: military forces are not trained to remedy the many political and economic problems in other countries. The Army and Marine Corps are not “the Peace Corps with guns.”37 They are trained to kill. They, like any other exercise of power, must not be misallocated.

The exercise of military power must also have a clearly marked expiration date. The exercise of any instrument of power—but especially the military kind—must not be indefinite. It must be succinctly planned, funded, and executed. In his chapter on the quagmire of the mission in Afghanistan, Gates recounts a 2009 meeting in which then-CIA Director Leon Panetta observed, “[w]e can’t leave, and we can’t accept the status quo.”38 This line of thinking endures today with many military leaders.

Those words could have been uttered in 2020 and 2021, which speaks volumes to their truth. After twenty years of operating there, the U.S. military has left Afghanistan; yet the narrative remains unchanged. I and other contract and fiscal law attorneys saw the same issues crop up over and over again. And each time, it seemed like we were reinventing the wheel. Afghanistan tends to do that to otherwise powerful countries. By mid-1986, Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev had told the Politburo that the Soviets needed “to get out of there.”39 By January 1987, a Politburo member stated that the Soviets had “been defeated.”40 Even the Defense Minister Sergei Sokolov admitted that the war could not be won militarily.41

Military intervention need not be the be-all and end-all. Diplomacy will not always work. Similarly, economic sanctions need not be the first choice in all situations. Gates argues that tools such as information operations, neutralizing or sabotaging leaders, cyberattacks and manipulation, security assistance and training, and expelling relatives from the United States are tools that are often available but unappreciated in their potential.42 He constantly reminds the reader, almost ad nauseum, that the only requirement is to consider, but not necessarily use, every tool.

All of that said, to Secretary Gates, some problems—like North Korea—can only be handled militarily.43 To exercise the full spectrum of power, the United States must face that reality and be willing to accept the costs and casualties that come with such a course of action.44 If those are unsavory options, then leaders should modify the strategy to meet goals that are palatable.

It is here, at this moment of the book, when Gates tires of rhetoric and discards his tweed and seersucker diplomacy collection of suits for the more practical military attire. Reminiscent of his Air Force officer days, and yearning for the full display of nationalistic hubris, Gates crowns military strength as the ultimate instrument of power and unabashedly compares the United States to distant but formidable foes like Russia and China.45 He recognizes the United States and Russia as the current undisputed military powers, but sees China’s rise as a dominant force in Asia as an achievable ambition.46 With China, he notes their “long-range strategy” of competing with the United States (and the United States’ lack of such a strategy) as their greatest nonmilitary instrument of power.47 To talk about Russia’s return to prominence and China’s continual rise to power and not mention American superiority, it would seem, would be criminal. Gates does not disappoint.

The Nonmilitary Solution

Gates wraps up the book by discussing ways to fix nonmilitary instruments and, thus, create the symphony needed to counter threats like China and Russia. This requires the United States to move away from the model of a “nineteenth-century tricycle, with a giant front wheel (Defense) and tiny back wheels (everyone else).”48 True to his past, he never suggests a degradation in military capabilities. Instead, the key is to sustain military might while strengthening the other powers, the greatest of which is the Department of State.49 Gates is not overt in his predilection, but the message is clear—the United States can most certainly exercise military might at will. Preferably, however, this plays out with the exercise of nonmilitary powers.50 Gates envisions that day coming, but only if lessons taught in the past are applied in the future. With a full symphony of power, led by a strong executive and guided by the right motives, there is no greater force on earth.

Russian General Valery Gerasimov wrote that the “role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases . . . have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”51 To Secretary Gates, there are “few more succinct descriptions of the use of nonmilitary instruments of power and how they can be integrated with covert military operations than Gerasimov’s.”52

Gates argues that friends and allies acquired and sustained through nonmilitary instruments of national power are vital in our “dangerous and unpredictable world.”53 The symphony of power he describes demands that the orchestra work together, and solos are rare. One thing is certain, however—the Department of Defense should rarely sit first chair. This is a lesson the United States continues to learn. Because of the enormous Defense budget, there is always a desire to solve everything with that budget and with those affiliated resources. Fiscally, however, that approach is not supportable, and the military often cannot, either legally or practically, answer the call every time funds are needed.


Much like Duty, Gates’s Exercise of Power is a must-read. His thoughtful meanderings across presidents, Congresses, and conflict through the decades are both insightful and entertaining. The visual he creates of a symphony is strong, and it holds the reader’s attention throughout multiple successes and failures. This symphony is a collective of unmatched power, and his message refuses the pessimism often found in nonfiction works today. Gates’s message is not dire, but rather illustrative. Leaders must be open to innovative ways to approach problems. The military must not be the first tool at the ready, but need not be the last resort, either. If the President offers the threat of the U.S. military, then the President must be willing to unleash it if necessary.

To Gates, a symphony composed of many instruments is a thing of beauty. He offers many warnings to the reader, but all is not lost. To Gates, this power defeated authoritarianism twice in the twentieth century, and stands ready to do so again.54 TAL

MAJ Smith is the brigade judge advocate for the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne).


1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby 180 (2004) (1925).

2. Robert M. Gates, Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World (2019).

3. Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (2014).

4. Gates, supra note 2, at 57.

5. Id. at 274.

6. Id. at 413 (emphasis added).

7. Id.

8. Id. at 306.

9. Id. at 396.

10. Id. at 141.

11. Id. at 122.

12. Id. at 118.

13. Id. at 77.

14. Id. at 320.

15. Id. at 321.

16. Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon (2016).

17. Gates, supra note 2, at 394.

18. Id. at 332.

19. Id.

20. Id. at 162.

21. Id.

22. Id.

23. Id.

24. Id.

25. Id. at 163.

26. Id. at 408.

27. Id. at 163.

28. Id. at 233.

29. Id. at 243.

30. Id.

31. Id. at 397.

32. Id. at 248.

33. Id.

34. Id. at 311.

35. Id. at 8.

36. Id. at 9 (quoting John Quincy Adams).

37. Id. at 126.

38. Id. at 185.

39. Id. at 168.

40. Id.

41. Id.

42. Id. at 323.

43. Id. at 351.

44. Id.

45. Id. at 364.

46. Id. at 365.

47. Id. at 386.

48. Id. at 400.

49. Id. at 401.

50. Id.

51. Id. at 289 (quoting Russian General Valery Gerasimov).

52. Id.

53. Id. at 243.

54. Id. at 11.